Yes - Researchers in the basic biology of aging can be funded with Alzheimer's money
The nation has made Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and related dementias (ADRD) a top research priority, through additional substantial funding from Congress. While aging is the major risk factor for AD and ADRD, many investigators in the biology of aging research community questioned whether their expertise would be recognized as valuable in this effort. Analysis of last year’s AD-related funding opportunity announcements (FOAs) suggests that the answer is yes: The participation of basic researchers with little or no previous experience in Alzheimer’s research will be crucial in addressing the first goal set by the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease, which sets out to prevent and effectively treat Alzheimer's disease by 2025.
Including basic scientists in Alzheimer’s research activities
In response to the actual increase in fiscal year 2016 funding and the possibility of significant additional funding beyond, the NIA in October 2016 published a comprehensive set of 26 separate FOAs seeking applications in a number of key areas of research. While most of the FOAs were focused on the usual issues that characterize Alzheimer’s research, NIA’s Division of Aging Biology (DAB) played a role in drafting seven of these FOAs: RFA AG 17-050, 055, 056 and 057, as well as PAR 17-029, 031 and 039. Indeed, when an additional $400 million in funding did become available in May 2017 to address AD and ADRD, the NIH was able to use those funds to support meritorious projects proposed in response to these FOAs.
When I spoke with multiple members of the research community, I kept hearing skepticism about the chances of classical aging biologists, many arguing that since they had not previously studied Alzheimer’s and often lacked preliminary data, they would be demolished in review, if they were reviewed at all. I must admit that I had some of the same misgivings. But based on my deep conviction that progress in AD requires us addressing its major risk factor—aging—I encouraged these basic researchers to try.
Review and results
We received applications, reviewed them, and made funding decisions, so now is a good time to reassess the situation. The response to the seven FOAs was, in general, robust: We received 105 applications involving 185 investigators. As a rough first measure to analyze the fate of applications by basic biologists, we looked at a very simple metric: How many applicants to these FOAs had had previous funding by DAB? As expected, only 12 percent had previous DAB funding.
The big, and satisfying, surprise was that the applications did not crash and burn in review as some had feared. In fact, less than half were triaged and more importantly, a bit more than half of the applicants previously funded by DAB received scores that ultimately led to funding. This is an unprecedented level of success, and indicates that, despite their initial misgivings, those who were brave enough to try were handsomely rewarded by actual funding. Not surprisingly, many (though not all) of the successful applications were collaborations between DAB-funded investigators and colleagues with experience and knowledge of AD and/or ADRD. This is a winning combination that does respond to the call to introduce new approaches and new expertise that might result in significant advances.
We’re now at the beginning of FY 2018, and we are hoping for a further boost in allocations for AD and ADRD research. With it, most likely there will be some new FOAs and new opportunities to add to the ones already available. DAB plans to participate again in these efforts, and I sincerely hope that researchers in the community routinely funded by DAB will feel encouraged and emboldened by the statistics mentioned above, and will apply their skills to this effort to understand and combat Alzheimer’s and related dementias.
The funds are made available by Congress, and it is our duty to make the best possible use of this support. I am convinced that, considering that aging biology is the major driver of the disease, using the advances in basic aging biology as a platform to address AD and ADRD is an excellent strategy to help attain the ultimate goal of controlling the explosion of Alzheimer’s and related dementias among older people.